April 23, 2010
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
Rice coach Wayne Graham surely loves it when a plan comes together.
Saddled with the difficult decision to move junior Rick Hague to designated hitter after Hague committed four errors at shortstop on Tuesday against Texas A&M, Graham juggled his defensive alignment in order to compensate for the removal of Hague. Senior first baseman Jimmy Comerota replaced Hague at short and junior Abel Gonzales, the Owls' most effective pitcher out of the bullpen, spelled Comerota at first.
Graham couldn't have envisioned a more favorable result as Hague, Comerota and Gonzales combined to finish 10-for-15 with eight runs scored and 10 RBIs in the Owls' 20-3 drubbing of No. 21 East Carolina in a Conference USA first-place showdown Friday night at Reckling Park.
"It's great when you make a move and it works," Graham joked.
"We know that Coach knows what he's talking about," said Comerota, who went 4-for-5 with four RBIs, including a solo homer. "We're all out here just trying to do what's best for the team. We just want to come out here every day and compete hard and let the chips fall where they may."
With Gonzales at first for just the seventh time and the batting order in need of reshuffling, Comerota hit sixth for the first time this season. He didn't flinch, recording a two-run single to center field in the first inning to bump the Owls' lead to 3-0. Comerota notched base hits in each of his final three plate appearances, following his RBI single to center in the fifth with a leadoff single in the seventh that sparked a five-run frame.
With a majority of his hits during his hot streak going to center or left, Comerota anticipated an increase in the number of breaking balls he would see from opposing pitchers as well as offerings away. When Pirates righthander Mike Anderson attempted to work Comerota away in the eighth, Comerota responded with an opposite-field home run.
"They're starting to come at me with different stuff, but that's what makes it fun," said Comerota, who is batting .521 (25-for-48) over his last 13 games and raised his season average to .352. "It's a challenge and you just keep competing, and hopefully I keep getting hits."
Gonzales opened the game with just 18 at-bats and a .167 average, but he displayed considerable determination when he engaged Pirates starter Zach Woods (5-2) in a lengthy battle in the second inning. Gonzales flew out to center to close that at-bat, but when he and Woods resumed their confrontation in the fifth, Gonzales prevailed, flicking a run-scoring double to left to help the Owls (24-16, 9-4 C-USA) expand their lead from four runs to 10-2. Gonzales added a two-run single in the seventh and raised his batting average 60 points with his 2-for-4 night.
"I tell myself to be aggressive," said Gonzales, who was also on the list of available relievers. "I know I took a couple of good pitches to hit too, but when I'm up there I just try to clear everything out of my mind. I don't have to worry about pitching, I don't have to worry about anything else (other than) just get out there and seize the opportunity."
Hague reached base in his first three at-bats, stole second twice, and cranked a leadoff home run in the third that gave the Owls a 4-0 lead. He provided the offense an early spark against the Pirates (24-15, 6-4) and distanced himself from his nightmarish defensive showing in College Station. Hague has been anything but a liability at the plate, so having the opportunity to swing the bat proved therapeutic on some levels.
"I think that's what Graham had in his mind, that I could just focus on one thing at one time," said Hague, who finished 4-for-6 with three RBIs and hit his seventh home run. "Everyone knows that shortstop has been like a dark spot for me lately, so just being able to get away from it and just focus on hitting made a lot of things easier.
"It makes me feel good for sure, and the fans were great. I could hear them cheering a little bit harder for me tonight because they know what I'm going through."
The unrelenting offensive onslaught proved overkill for Owls lefthanded ace Taylor Wall (3-4), who struck out a season-high nine batters while walking none over seven strong innings. The Pirates thrice had their first two runners reach to open an inning, and Wall bucked down each time, surrendering solo runs in the fourth, fifth and seventh, the last of which was unearned. In five league starts, Wall is 3-0 with a 2.04 ERA.
Wall did what was required. On Friday night, he was not alone.
"I'm real proud of the team; we've been really determined," Gonzales said. "That's something earlier in the season that I couldn't have said.
"Everyone has got their spirits up. Whatever they're asked to do they're just getting out there and doing it and working hard. I think there are good things to come for us."
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